Being an Elder in Guatemala

By: Izela de León

Everyone at some point in time has had some type of relationship with an elderly person. Sometimes these people are our grandmothers and grandfathers and other times, they are someone else’s grandparents. Whether they are family or not, we always learn from their experience and they enrich our lives with stories about what they lived through, which we may never have the opportunity to experience. Today, however, many elderly people are abandoned and rejected by their families, thus wasting the enormous privilege of having their invaluable and unique experiences within reach.

Guatemala already has a legal framework that protects older adults. However, reality is far different from the law since many elderly people live by begging for money on the streets, selling handmade items for very little money or doing activities that are not appropriate for their state of health and age, but that due to the circumstances they find themselves in, they do to obtain their daily sustenance and cover the expenses of their immediate needs. Some elderly people work to appease not only hunger and cold of thir body but also of the soul, because they have no other way to overcome loneliness. Today the organizations that most support older Guatemalans are the asylums, which not only undertake the enormous social labor of caring for seniors but have also taken on the government’s role in terms of policies aimed at this sector of the population. The asylums not only provide care for the elderly, but are also trying to publicize the rights of the elderly through the media. Nevertheless, the asylums can’t do it all: although they try to provide the basics necessities of life, most of them lack recreational programs for elderly people to occupy their time and entertain themselves.

Guatemala is a country with a large population of young people but it will inevitably age over the years. It is worrying that at the national level we are unprepared for the next generation of grandmothers and grandfathers. The elderly program, for example, has certainly helped some elderly people but it does not reach everyone in need nor does it meet every need of this sector of the population. So that people who are interested in supporting the elderly keep increasing their personal contributions, given that there is no state support and the support for private initiative at the national level or from donations from abroad is practically limited.

It is necessary to demand, not for charity but for justice, the benefits for the elderly established by existing laws. How can we make concrete progress? Civil society can coordinate at local and regional levels but the state cannot be completely relieved of responsibility. The state must be pressured to fulfill its function in terms of attention to this vulnerable and unprotected sector of the population. The role of societies to care for not only today’s elderly, but also tomorrow’s, is to start educating through families and schools, with children and youth. Remember that care for the elderly is not only economic but also physical, emotional and social, so it is important to include the elderly in day-to-day life as people who were important and continue to be so.